Expanding a Chicago Pizza Icon

Say the name “Giordano’s” to Chicagoans, and you’ll immediately see their eyes light up and their mouths begin to water. The restaurant chain is one of the most recognizable in the pizza-proud city, its rich, savory pies feeding neighborhoods and suburbs throughout the entire metro area. It’s no wonder, then, that the company wants to extend its iconic brand (and the delicious pizza that goes with it) by firing up new ovens across greater swaths of the Midwest. To help get itself there, Giordano's has chosen native Chicagoan Dana Polonsky to be its senior director of real estate and development. Polonsky brings a wealth of experience with her, having also aided in the expansions of Five Guys, Noodles & Co., and Caribou Coffee.

Dana Polonsky (pictured here in Giordano’s flagship store in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood) is a born-and-bred Chicagoan who considers herself lucky to have a job that allows her to not only live in the area but also travel all over the country. “You can’t get a feel for a [potential franchise location] by looking it up on Google Earth,” she says. “You have to be there, see what kind of traffic it gets, see who shops there, and understand what the area is like.” (Photo: Sheila Barabad)
As Giordano’s expands, it’s finding ways to fit its prototype to a variety of locations, including renovated historical structures such as this Clark Street location in Chicago. (Rendering: Aria Group Architects, Inc.)
As Giordano’s expands, it’s finding ways to fit its prototype to a variety of locations, including renovated historical structures such as this Clark Street location in Chicago. (Rendering: Aria Group Architects, Inc.)

When Polonsky began working with Giordano’s, the company was already quite different from its namesake South Side pizza shop, founded in 1974 by two Italian brothers, Efrin and Joseph Boglio. Seeking fortune in the United States, the Boglios brought their mother’s double-crusted pizza pie recipe to their new home and named their restaurant after their mother’s family. Soon, Chicagoans began to take notice. In 1977, Chicago magazine named the Boglios’ pie the best in the world, and their pizza joint’s legacy began.

Giordano’s Milestones

1974
Efrin and Joseph Boglio open the first Giordano’s, honoring their mother’s maiden name, on the South Side of Chicago; they base their business on their mother’s recipe for double-crusted pizza

1977
Chicago magazine names Giordano’s the “Best Pizza In The World,” and business takes off

Mid-1980s
An employee purchases the company from the Boglio brothers and expands it into a chain through franchising; in addition to more Chicagoland stores, the company opens a few Florida locations

2008
The market crashes, and the company is forced into bankruptcy

2011
Victory Park Capital purchases Giordano’s, and begins its plans for expansion throughout the Midwest

2014
Giordano’s is again recognized by Chicago magazine, this time as the “Best Pizza in Chicago”

In the mid-1980s, a Giordano’s employee purchased the shop from the Boglios and set to work expanding the concept through franchising. Under its new ownership, Giordano’s even opened three locations in Florida. And, over time, the new owner developed a holding group with an enormous variety of assets, many in real estate. When the crash of 2008 happened, though, he was forced into bankruptcy.

Then, Victory Park Capital came in. A private equity group based in Chicago, Victory took ownership of Giordano’s in 2011, and a couple of years later, it hired Dana Polonsky to take the reins of Giordano’s real estate and development initiative.

By then, Polonsky had years of experience developing and expanding food brands. Years earlier, she says, she had been an aspiring “international business guru.” Those plans changed when she was working for a shoe company and her boss asked her to evaluate a lease for a new store. When she came back with a careful analysis of what the benefits and risks were, he dubbed her the company’s new leasing coordinator.

When that company went bankrupt, though, “I had all the pieces in place to stretch my legs in the industry,” Polonsky says. She joined Caribou Coffee, working on their Chicago rollout for three years. Then she went to Noodles & Co., then Five Guys. “Giordano’s was a really great opportunity from there,” she says. “I’m from Chicago and wanted to be part of this iconic brand.”

Right now, Giordano’s expansion is focused on the Midwest. “We want to draw on those … experiences [from customers] who have visited our stores in Chicago and want the same experience back home,” Polonsky says. “The strategy for growth we have is in concentric circles, as a growing Midwest brand.” Currently, Giordano’s has two pathways for growth: corporate expansion and franchising. When the company makes a decision to enter a new market, Polonsky explains, it goes through a strategic planning process that involves first looking at the new region and identifying reasonable places for a flagship store.

For instance, “we are going to expand into Minneapolis,” Polonsky says. “Prior to doing anything—to hiring a broker or looking for sites—myself and other executives sat down with a map. We asked ourselves, ‘How many areas can we reasonably penetrate?’ We want to have a flagship restaurant then grow in concentric circles around it. You need to have the operational support to grow.”

The other way Giordano’s opens new locations is, of course, through franchising. Giordano’s has what Polonsky calls a “very good stable of franchisees, some of which have been with our brand for 30 years.”

The company is expanding through both new corporate locations and new franchise locations, but it makes sure that a similar style runs through each one. (Rendering: Aria Group Architects, Inc.)
The company is expanding through both new corporate locations and new franchise locations, but it makes sure that a similar style runs through each one. (Rendering: Aria Group Architects, Inc.)

The company has identified markets and intersections that are well suited for franchise developers; they’ll ask their trusted franchisers to find suitable locations in those realms.

All franchise locations are evaluated for growth potential and eventually outfitted to ensure customers have largely the same experience at any Giordano’s they go to, whether it’s the Chicago flagship store or the newly opened shop about a half hour away in Glenview, Illinois’s Heatherfield Shopping Center.

Currently, Giordano’s is working on entering new markets in Minneapolis and Indianapolis, but Polonsky says it’s open to exploring regions outside the Midwest if the right opportunity arises. Over the next few years it wants to double its number of locations (it has 43, currently), and with pizzas flying out of the ovens of its Chicago shops, there’s no reason to doubt it will do so.